It’s not just “that’s just the way it is”.
The cornerstone of modern atheism is undoubtedly evolution by random natural selection. Paley’s doctrine was that the creatures we see about us are so exquisitely contrived there must be an exquisite contriver, they could not possibly have come about by purely natural means. But that was precisely what Darwin showed. It is a compelling narrative because you can actually see bacteria evolving under the pressures of competitive selection through a microscope. Imagine a vast number of molecules floating around and bumping into each other in a liquid. Those in which the atoms happen to be arranged in regular crystalline patterns will tend to stick to each other and form more complex structures. Or imagine protein chains floating round in the liquid. Proteins that happen to bump into others in which the hollows and folds that proteins have happen to fit will combine with each other. Order grows from chaos through chance selection of random variations. And so it is all the way up.
All this must be true. But I’m not convinced this randomness is all there is to it. DNA replaced RNA as the main encoded form of life, considering its complexity, relatively early in evolutionary history. Life evolved through random changes in the order of A C G and T. But consider that at one point a small change from, say, ACGT to, say, ACGC happening through copying error results in the beginnings of birds’ wings, at another point the same mutation results in an increase in memory capacity in the human brain. This surely suggests that the information ACG and T convey cannot be anything to do with the encoding digits themselves, just as b and a and d can spell bad in one place and dab in another, even though the letters themselves have nothing to do with badness or dabbing. It has to come from somewhere else. When somebody writes a letter the information organizing the digits comes from the brain of the writer. But where does it come from in the evolution of natural forms? At this point I suspect biologists will throw up their hands and say well that’s just the way it is. But that seems to me to be intellectual surrender.
Or think of arrangements of ACG and T expressing a slight thinning of the skin of a creature in the early seas, thus enabling a gleam of light guiding such a creature more effectively to its prey, and then a slight re-arrangement leading to slightly more thinning that will eventually lead to the development of an eye. Why should these simple arrangements and re-arrangements of ACG and T mean that eyes begin to develop? If you mark four pebbles with ACG and T and then move them around you don’t get eyes. Again I think we’re back to ‘well that’s just the way it is’. Can we really believe that a random re-arrangement of the nucleotides that just happens to happen through meaningless copying error just happen to result in such meaningful consequences, and through all the many millions, if not billions of genetic changes that must have occurred in the process of the first replicators that floated round in the primeval seas developing into intelligent human beings, such meaningful events just happened to meaninglessly happen? Yet nevertheless there must be random natural selection. There is just too much evidence.
Science has developed through increasingly deeper penetration into nature. Bodies are made of cells that are made of molecules that are made of atoms that are made of electrons orbiting nuclei made of protons and neutrons, which are made of quarks which are made of …what? Perhaps there are more layers, far more perhaps, that we have not yet discovered beneath the quarks that would enable us to understand why even these primitives are the way they are. We increasingly understand the way things are at the top by understanding what is happening at the bottom. But we don’t know what is happening at the bottom. Looking at it from this angle you begin to see that the certainty that simple evolution through random natural selection appears to give us is an illusion. Which is not to say that this is not the way it is. It is to say we just don’t know.
There can be no God somewhere beyond the sky exquisitely contriving the creatures we see about us. Darwin certainly nailed that one down. But for my money a cosmic intelligence right at the bottom of things – underneath underneath underneath – gradually but meaningfully expressing itself for reasons best known to itself through random natural selection (because order itself is by definition not random and order itself is the condition, as the molecules whose atoms were already in ordered rows and proteins that had bends and bumps that would already have fitted into each had they bumped into each other even if they hadn’t done – though given enough Darwinian time we’re not talking might happens but virtually certain will happens – as the molecules and proteins floating round in the liquid and happening to bind onto each other show us in the process whereby complexity emerges from what was only apparent chaos – more order only appearing because there was previously less order but nevertheless order – a guiding cosmic intelligence trying now this to achieve its purpose, and then if it didn’t work now that, is a more credible explanation. There could only be random selection because there already was potential order.
The molecules bumping into each other didn’t just bump and recoil they combined into more complex structures because they already had a potential to combine but it needed the bumping to release it. And, perhaps, was it not that it just happened to be but that it absolutely had to be that way? Without the randomness there could not have been the looseness, so to speak, necessary for the development of complexity. Without copying error there could only have been perfect copying and nothing but rows and rows of perfect but identical copies going nowhere. And when you add onto that some even more unanswerable questions such as why is the universe so incredibly beautiful, and how did it come about that the Big Bang emerged from nothing – and I cannot emphasize too much that Hawking and Aquinas and mystics of every stripe and kind are in total agreement on this point, it all came out of nothing – but the hot plasma was not itself full of nothing, as you might have expected, but the primal elements whose destiny was to combine into all the complex organizations we see about us, then a cosmic intelligence is for me far more credible than the ‘it’s all just natural selection, that’s just the way it is’ kind of explanation. I stress, though, not certain but more credible. The certainty science appears to give us is an illusion. We just don’t know. It’s all a matter of faith, even if your faith is I don’t have any faith.